On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

In fantasy novels, those blessed with magical power often chose to become heroes.

In Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail (suitable for children as young as four and at least as old as forty — our family read it aloud together and we all loved it), the protagonist is a child with prodigious magical gifts but limited training. She’s always trying to make the world a better place. The villain is a weaker mage who attempts to siphon off the hero’s power for her own nefarious ends.

Even when fantasy authors are kind of awful – perhaps using their outsize cultural influence to oppress other people – their wizards mostly strive to do good.

But not in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

A more accurate reflection of our current world, The Magicians shows wizards making the same sorts of choices as Ivy League graduates – greed and status prioritized over service. Characters celebrate their own brilliance by grabbing as much as they can from the world around them. With great power comes the chance to make money in finance.

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I love having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but the experience of reading it was often cringe-inducing. The characters are awful, particularly the main protagonist. It’s compelling in the way of Bojack Horseman, a steady desire to see what happens, even while knowing that it won’t be good.

The protagonist, Quentin, is a single-minded young man out for glory. He’d planned to jaunt off to Princeton, in recognition of his stellar performance at New York City magnet schools, but he enrolls at a wizards’ academy instead. There, he steadily accrues magical prowess; he also maintains the selfish ethical nihilism of an embittered teenager.

At times, it’s clear that Grossman has knowingly made his protagonist despicable; at other moments, it wasn’t quite clear whether the author was aware. Quentin revels in the incel attitude that love is owed to him by the world in recognition of his determination and intellect. Quentin puts no effort into building relationships – instead, the author rewards him with the desire of flatly-portrayed women, just another trophy to be won.

Though Quentin begins the book bemoaning that a certain lady friend isn’t interested in having sex with him, he doesn’t remain celibate forever. But his same twisted worldview persists.

In Entitled, Kate Manne writes that

It’s a mistake to think that incels are primarily motivated by sex. Not only are some incels also interested in love (or some outward simulacrum thereof), but their interest in having sex with “Staceys” is at least partly a means to an end – the end being to beat the “Chads” at their own game. Sex thus promises to sooth these men’s inferiority complexes, at least as must as to satisfy their libidos.

Yet another mistake is to think that sex would provide a solution to an incel’s supposed problem. If an incel does start having sex, or gets into a relationship, who will he turn into?

A once-single incel may well become a female partner’s tormentor. Anyone can feel lonely. But a wrongheaded sense of entitlement to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor may result in incel tendencies prior to the relationship and intimate partner violence afterward, if he feels thwarted, resentful, or jealous.

In other words, an incel is an abuser waiting to happen.

In The Magicians, women are depicted as having personalities only insofar as they relate to Quentin. When Quentin’s ex-girlfriend sleeps with someone – a man who is kinder, more studious, a better wizard, and has spent weeks working closely on a project with her – it’s soon revealed that she had sex with him only to hurt Quentin.

And when Quentin feels lonely and adrift in the final pages of the novel, the author has a new romantic interest fly through his window – the woman whom Quentin had pined for in high school, whom he refused to help when she was herself distraught, who is now a powerful self-taught wizard and hopes only to serve as a queen alongside Quentin as king in a magical fairyland.

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Quentin hates his parents – he dismisses their paltry hopes and dreams in a few short paragraphs, and never considers using his newfound powers to help them in any way.

Quentin is indifferent to the world – he uses his magic to score drugs and make money. What else would be worth doing? Other people haven’t worked as hard as he has, Quentin believes, or else they would have been successful, too.

And those few people who are better at magic than Quentin – blessed with more prodigious intellects or greater work ethics – are derided as either sexual deviants or friendless wimps, “so autistically focused that even direct mockery bounced right off him.” As in the novels of Ayn Rand, there can only be one greatest man, and the best women will inevitably fawn over him.

Which is why The Magicians works so well. There’s a persistent meanness throughout. The characters are crude and cruel. Through the lens of fantasy tropes, The Magicians reflects our world.

If Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” could cast spells, what do you think they’d do?

On magic.

On magic.

There’s broad scientific consensus that school closures hurt children, probably making a significant contribution to future increases in premature death.

There’s also broad scientific consensus that school closures – particularly elementary school closures – aren’t helpful in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Children aren’t major vectors for this virus. Adults just have to remember not to congregate in the teachers’ lounge.

Worldwide, a vanishingly small percentage of viral transmissions have occurred inside schools.

And … our district just closed in-person school for all children.

In-person indoor dining at restaurants is still allowed. Bars are still open.

Older people are sending a clear message to kids: “Your lives matter less than ours.”

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For at-risk children, school closures are devastating. A disruption in social-emotional learning; lifelong education gaps; skipped meals.

But for my (privileged!) family, the closure will be pretty nice. I was recently feeling nostalgic about the weeks in August when my eldest and I spent each morning together.

Our youngest attends pre-K at a private school. Her school, like most private schools around the country, (sensibly) re-opened on time and is following its regular academic calendar.

My eldest and I will do two weeks of home schooling before winter break. And it’ll be fun. I like spending time with my kids, and my eldest loves school so much that she often uses up most of her energy during the day – teachers tell us what a calm, lovely, hard-working kid she is. And then she comes home and yells, all her resilience dissipated.

Which is normal! Totally normal. But it’s a little crummy, as a parent, to know you’ve got a great kid but that you don’t get to see her at her best.

Right now she’s sad about not going to school – on Monday, she came home crying, “There was an announcement that we all have to switch to online only!” – but I’m lucky that I can be here with her. Writing stories together, doing math puzzles, cooking lunch.

Maybe we’ll practice magic tricks. She loves magic.

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Last month, I was getting ready to drive the kids to school. T. (4 years old) and I were in the bathroom. I’d just handed T. her toothbrush.

N. (6 years old) walked over holding a gallon-sized plastic bag.

“Father, do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked.

“Okay, but I have to brush my teeth while you’re doing it.”

“Okay,” she said, and opened the bag. She took out a multi-colored lump of clay. It was vaguely spherical. Globs of red, white, and blue poked up from random patches across the surface, as though three colors of clay had been haphazardly moshed together.

“So you think this is just this,” she said, but then …”

She took out a little wooden knife and began sawing at the lump. “This is just this?”, I wondered. It’s an interesting phrase.

Her sawing had little effect. The knife appeared useless. I’m pretty sure this wooden knife is part of the play food set she received as a hand-me-down when she was 9 months old. “Safe for babies” is generally correlated with “Useless for cutting.”

She was having trouble breaking the surface of her lump.

I spat out my toothpaste.

She kept sawing. She set down the knife and stared at the clay intently. A worthy adversary.

I stood there, watching.

She grabbed the knife again and resumed sawing. More vigorously, this time. She started stabbing, whacking. This was enough to make a tiny furrow. She tossed aside the knife and pulled with her fingertips, managing to pry two lobes of the strange lump away from each other.

“Okay,” she said, “it’s hard to see, but there’s some green in there.”

T. and I crouched down and peered closely. Indeed, there was a small bit of round green clay at the center of the lump.

“Wow!” exclaimed T. “I thought it was just a red, and, uh, blue, and white ball! But then, on the inside, there’s some green!”

“I know!” said N., happy that at least one member of her audience understood the significance of her trick. “And look, I might even get it back together!”

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N. started performing magic when she was four. T. was asleep for her afternoon nap.

“Okay,” she said, “you sit there, and I’ll put on a magic show. Watch, I’ll make, um … this cup! See this cup? I’ll make it disappear.”

“Okay,” I said, curious. We’d just read a book that explained how to make a penny disappear from a glass cup – the trick is to start with the cup sitting on top of the penny, so that the coin looks like it’s inside the cup but actually isn’t.

I had no idea how she planned to make the cup itself disappear.

“Okay, so, um, now you’re ready, and …” she looked at the cup in her hands. Suddenly, she whisked it behind her back. And stood there, looking at me somberly, with her hands behind her back.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

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Magic – convincing an audience to believe in an illusion.

This is just this.

I don’t have the cup – it’s gone.

Much of our Covid-19 response has been magic-based. We repeat illusory beliefs – schools are dangerous, reinfections are rare, death at any age is a tragedy – and maybe our audience is swayed.

But that doesn’t change the underlying reality.

The cup still exists – it was behind her back.

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Everyone will die. Mortality is inescapable.

Our species is blessed with prodigious longevity, probably because so many grandmothers among our ancestors worked hard to help their grandchildren survive.

(The long lives of men are probably an accidental evolutionary byproduct, like male nipples or female orgasms. Elderly men, with their propensity to commandeer resources and start conflicts, probably reduced the fitness of their families and tribes.)

After we reach our seventies, though – when our ancestors’ grandchildren had probably passed their most risky developmental years – our bodies fail. We undergo immunosenescence – our immune systems become worse at suppressing cancer and infections.

We will die. Expensive interventions can stave off death for longer – we can now vaccinate 90-year-olds against Covid-19 – but we will still die.

Dying at the end of a long, full life shouldn’t feel sad, though. Everybody dies. Stories end. That’s the natural arc of the world.

What’s sad is when people die young.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unnecessary school closures.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unmitigated climate change.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These are urgent threats facing our world. And we’re not addressing them.

The cup is still there.

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For my daughter, of course, I played along. I smiled, and laughed. She stood there beaming, holding the cup behind her back.

“Magic!” I said.

N. nodded proudly, then asked, “Do you want me to bring it back?”

It’ll take the same measure of magic to bring back schools.

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

One night last September, I returned home after teaching in jail and realized that I’d lost my keys.  I’d promised our daughter that I would take her swimming at the YMCA that evening, but K drove by the jail first so that I could dash in, search the waiting room for my keys, and ask the guards to check the lockers (I’m allowed to bring only paper and pencils inside, so anything else I’m carrying has to be crammed into a small metal basket near booking) and the classroom upstairs.

No luck.

Because there’s such a short turnaround between the end of K’s school day and the time my own classes are scheduled to begin at jail, I strap the kids into their car seats each afternoon and drive to the high school, where I slide to the passenger side and K drives me to jail.  I hurry in, often a few minutes late, teach a class, then walk the three miles back to our house.

Which meant there was one more promising place I could check for my keys.  The jail is at the bottom of a hill – the inmates whose work we just published were living in a windowless underground space since the building extends into that hill – but K lets me out of the car at the top of the hill, a block and a half away, before turning toward home on a one-way street.

On that September night I told K, “Can you loop around and pick me up?  I wanna jog up the hill to look one last place.”

Indeed, my keys were there, lying in the grass alongside the curb.  They’d lain unmolested from 4:08 till 7:30, perhaps because they were attached to a camouflage-patterned lanyard.  It was fourteen years old, that lanyard, one of the only two physical objects given to me by the woman I dated through most of our sophomore year of college (the other being a copy of Frankenstein riddled with her previous semester’s marginalia).

I felt triumphant, standing in that patch of grass.  I hoisted my keys toward the sky.  Finding things that were lost outside always seems magical – so much could have happened during the three hours my keys lay there.

I know, of course, that magic isn’t real.  Neither is luck.  But knowing is different from believing.

I continued feeling lucky for almost ten minutes.  That’s when I started to think that K was taking an awfully long time to circle the block and pick me up.  I’d expected to wait a while because this was the first night of Lotus Festival, an international music festival that Bloomington hosts every year, for which many streets are closed downtown and the remaining few stall with crawling traffic.

Standing beside the street, waiting in the waning light, my mind began to wander.  I had nothing to do … nothing in particular to think about … which is dangerous.  Suddenly every coincidence seemed a portent.  Going through my head was the thought: what if luck is finite?  What if I used my up on the keys?  What if I found my keys but lost my family?

I know now that this sounds ridiculous, but at the time I was standing alone in the waning light, rhythmically blinded by the headlights of passing cars – then the speculation felt reasonable.

1024px-Ambulance_Toronto_March_2010Suddenly, after twelve minutes of waiting, I heard an approaching siren.  A fire engine and an ambulance turned toward me, passed, and strobed off in the same direction my wife had driven.  Music festivals are full of drunks … our town is full of drugs … what if they were in a car crash?

I stood, feeling crushed, for a moment more … then started sprinting, chasing the flashing lights.  I followed for half a mile before I lost track of the way they’d gone.

Then, of course, I worried whether my family had driven by the spot where I said I’d be during those minutes I spent chasing the ambulance.  I dashed back.  I waited again.  I grew worried again.  Back and forth I skittered around town, compelled by the vagaries of my unmoored imagination.

By nine o’clock I wound up in a grocery store.  Wild-eyed, I asked if there were pay phones anywhere – no, not anywhere anymore – then asked at the customer service desk if I could make a local call and tried K’s number.

“We thought you were meeting us at the library.  We waited for fifteen minutes but then we had to go home … the kids need to go to bed.”

An idle mind can be a terrifying thing.

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Dollarnote_siegel_hqIn jail, conspiracy theories run rampant.  Everyone’s mind is idle there.  People inside have nothing to do but sit and think and try to make sense of what is happening.  The lights are off for only four hours each night, which exacerbates the problem.  So I’ve heard a lot about assassinations, and faked assassinations, and the secretive groups that plan them.  The conspirators are presumed to be far more competent than I’ve found most government employees to be.  I once nodded sagely for twenty minutes straight while a former construction foreman explained the significance of the prophetic phrase “hewn stone.”

We built a kingdom of brick, but the bricks have fallen.  After the twin towers fell, we had to rebuild.  We’re building a wall.  This time it’ll be hewn stone.

Certain numbers take on inordinate significance.  The people inside search for whatever patterns arose during their own lives.  They draw elaborate historical charts to determine whether the year of jubilee should be the forty-ninth or the fiftieth.

Apparently Yahweh told his people to celebrate jubilee after every seven cycles of seven years, during which festival all slaves shall be freed, all debts forgiven, all prisoners pardoned.  If the people choose not to celebrate jubilee, they will be punished by another curse.  Jubilee has never been celebrated.

The former foreman argued that jubilee should have occurred during 2016, and that the 45th is our curse.  Again I nodded sagely.  What does one say?  People inside wait, and wait, and wait.  Dreadful are the ruts that idle time allows a mind to dig.

Although … in the men’s defense … people are conspiring against them.  Judges and PDs and prosecutors often seem to act in concert, pressuring a dude together to just take the plea, keep it out of court, wrap it up nice and neat with twelve years suspend four for a level three … which gives the men more fodder for their numerology.

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In jail, the mind’s idleness is enforced.  We punish people for poverty: they can do nothing but sit and wait.  When lucky they might be allowed to visit the jail library, but the schizophrenic guy in seg constantly kicking his steel cell door makes it difficult to read.  And the books on hand are those that other men in jail have left behind, about Knights Templar, UFO, ESP, prophecies.

The men sit and wait … sit and think … sit and believe …

Great wealth can accomplish the same.

jacobsenIn Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen discusses the history of research into paranormal activity.  The design flaws in most of the experiments are glaringly obvious.  Some, like the recent efforts to demonstrate precognition, torture data with unnecessary statistical manipulation.  Others simply presume the effects under study to be real, eliminating necessary controls.  Sometimes this was justified by claiming that the presence of nonbelievers would negatively effect psychic ability.  Sometimes psychics would be put into unusual situations, like a Faraday Cage or outer space, to determine which environs best bolster their (nonexistent) powers.

But researchers received steady funding, allowing their ill-conceived experiments to continue.  In some cases the money came from the U.S. government:

One of the CIA’s early programs sought to develop a truth serum, an age-old quest that touched upon ideas of magic potions and sorcerer’s spells.  In consort with U.S. Army scientists at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, this classified program was first called Bluebird, then Artichoke, and finally MKULTRA.  For these and other programs like them the CIA hired magicians, hypnotists, and even Sybil Leek, Britain’s famous white witch.

At other times, funding came from the idle rich.  The wealthy of southern California have long squandered money on healing crystals, orgone chambers, and the advice of smooth-talking gurus; they also fueled paranormal research.

Among those in attendance who were enchanted by Puharich’s Theory [that brains radiate energy, allowing for telepathy, telekinesis, and more] were two wealthy benefactors, Joyce Borden Balokovic and Zlatko Balokovic.  Joyce was a primary shareholder of the Borden dairy fortune; Zlatko was a world-renowned Yugoslavian-born virtuoso violinist who owned one of the world’s largest collections of Guarnerius and Stradivarius instruments.

[Joyce] suggested Puharich create a research laboratory in Maine dedicated to the study of the Puharich Theory.  She and Zlatko would be happy to donate, she said, and so would many of their friends.  To demonstrate, Joyce introduced Puharich to a friend she was certain would also want to become a benefactor, Alice Astor Bouverie.

Alice Astor Bouverie was an heiress, a philanthropist, and the only daughter of John Jacob Astor IV, of the Astor dynasty.  Alice was just ten years old when her father, one of the richest men in the world, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Astor left his daughter $5 million, roughly $120 million in 2017.  Like Joyce Borden, Alice was interested in ESP, and in mental telepathy in particular, a notion she learned about from her father.

A third female patron was introduced to the growing circle: Marcella Miller du Pont, of the chemical and weapons production conglomerate.  Like Joyce Borden and Alice Astor, Marcella du Pont was passionate about ESP and willing to finance Puharich’s research efforts in this area.

While waiting for the next dinner party, or the next trans-Atlantic flight, why not sit and muse over the possibility of bending spoons with thought?

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What does the germination of supernatural belief look like?

Vivek Shanbhag provides a beautiful illustration in his novel Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur.  An industrious uncle launches the narrator’s family into the upper echelons of wealth; with nothing to strive for, the rest of the family slips into decadent sloth.

shanbhagIt’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us.  When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.  Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The narrator’s sister marries.  Insufficiently pampered, she returns home.  The uncle sends a set of bodyguards to intimidate the former husband and reclaim her dowry.

The narrator marries, too.  An eligible woman is found, a wedding is arranged, and, during the honeymoon, he feels that happiness is within reach.  But for some reason his new wife expects him to do something with his time:

After speaking about her family’s routine through most of breakfast, she went quiet as we returned to the room.  Perhaps she was thinking of how her day would change after we returned home, how it would have to reshape itself to accommodate my workday.  Then, as I unlocked the door, she asked me how much leave I had taken from work.

We entered the room.  I closed the door and encircled her waist with my arm.

I’d take permanent leave to be with you,” I said, trying to brush the question off.

No, I’m serious.  I really want to know.  Tell me how much leave you have,” she said.

I just told you,” I said.  “It’s the truth.  I’m on endless leave now that you’re here.”

She asked again, but I managed to make light of the matter and leave it at that.

I don’t know all that [my advocate] had said while the marriage talks were on, but I believe she was told I was the director of Sona Masala, [the family’s spice packaging company].  Which was, of course, true.  The fact that I didn’t have anything to do with the running of the business is another matter altogether.

Soon he finds his wife’s presence intolerable.  She is too honest.  She has too much integrity.  She treats the mobster uncle with insufficient deference.  She remarks on the petty misbehavior of everyone in the family.  The narrator’s only refuge is a nearby coffee house, where he convinces himself that a waiter’s trite clichés contain deep insight.

When the narrator’s new wife takes a week-long trip, the family celebrates her absence by discussing local gossip … of a particularly morbid type:

The whole town knows Manjunath killed his wife.”

You’ve got to hand it to Manjunath, though.  He’s managed to get away with it without any consequences …”

There’d been a report in the newspaper about a woman who had died two years ago of burns resulting from a gas leak in the kitchen.  It had been proven that her husband’s family had planned the accident.

But in court they claimed it was all an accident and that the police forced a confession out of them.  They were all released …”

These days murder has become commonplace,” [my uncle] said.  “People go ahead and kill someone, but then they get caught.  Remember that techie who recently killed his wife  He was caught because of his overplanning.”  He laughed.

What are you people saying?” [my father] asked.  He looked upset.  “You’re talking as if it’s all right to kill someone when it suits us.”

[My uncle] sighed.  “Coffee King is living in another age,” he said.  These things are not as big a deal today.  I haven’t brought it up before – but do you know how much I pay as protection money on behalf of Sona Masala?  Everyone else does it, too.  You never know when you might need these people.  It’s practically a collective responsibility of businessmen now to ensure they are looked after …”

Now it’s Tuesday.  Anita hasn’t called since she left.  Going by the ticket I booked for her, she should have been back yesterday afternoon.  I haven’t returned home since I left yesterday morning.  Haven’t been able to summon the courage.

Instead of returning home, he visits his beloved coffee shop:

As Vincent placed my coffee on the table, I said to him distractedly that I hoped his family was well.  He nodded, and with a faint smile said, “Blood is thicker than water, isn’t it, sir?”

I began to shiver at the mention of blood.  Whatever the meaning of the saying, why should he bring up blood at a time like this?  He was at least kind enough to pretend not to notice my discomfort.  He went away without speaking another word.

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If we assume in advance that each word carries deep meaning – that each happening is a portent – we can always contort our interpretations to make the world’s coincidences fit a prophecy.

I’m sitting here, waiting anxiously.  For what, I don’t know.  The phone rings.  I grab it and look at the screen.  An unknown number.

I answer: “Hello?”

A voice at the other end: “Hello, Gopi, is that you?”

No, it’s not.

Wrong number,” I say, not very politely, and hang up.  My mind is in a whirl.  Why today of all days must I receive these useless calls?  First the insurance agent, now this.  Could it be a sign?

Maybe Anita hasn’t returned from Hyderabad.  Or maybe she’s back and hasn’t called because she’s still mad at me.  Could she have had an accident on her way from the train station?  What if a lorry slammed into her as she got out of the auto-rickshaw outside our house?  Or could something have happened to her after she came home?  What if she’s killed herself?  Everything she might need is there.  A roll of rope, electric current, sleeping pills.  A tall building not too far away.  Two women to goad her – what agent of death is as discreet as words?

Enough of this madness!  Let me go home now.  I reach for the glass of water in front of me.  It shatters in my hand.  Vincent comes running, folds up the tablecloth, making sure none of the water falls on me.  He seats me at the next table and brings another coffee without my having to ask.

I sit there trying to compose myself, sipping the coffee with some determination.

As he’s passing by on his way to another table, Vincent says, “Sir, you may want to wash your hand.  There’s blood on it.”

I freeze.  What is happening?  What have I become entangled in?  There must be some way out of all this.  The words rush into my head of their own accord: ghachar ghochar.

Ghachar ghochar.”  A nonsense phrase invented by his wife’s family, meaning entangled, chaotic, irremediably ruined.  Idle time let his mind roam free; with this freedom, he could imagine only doom.

Although perhaps the narrator is right to worry.  Looming over him, a otherworldly deity – an author – pulls the strings.  Within a novel, no coincidence is innocent.

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”

squeeI was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.

My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.

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Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.

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Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:

collapseI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.

Moby_Dick_p510_illustrationIn Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.

The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.

Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:

10838762315_69b85f2e8a_zAnd equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.

Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.

1024px-Mother_and_baby_sperm_whale.jpg

Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.

Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.

The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.

#

Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.

Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:

The_Moth_Snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.

Cleaning splattered bugs off a windshield doesn’t sound like fun; drivers rarely have to do this anymore. But … we now have only a tenth as many insects as we did during the 1980s. Which means a tenth as much food for birds: their populations are falling too. Birds breed more slowly now, for lack of food, and many are killed off because our world sports unnaturally high population densities of predatory cats.

And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.

#

Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.

Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.

From Ula Chrobak’s article on noise pollution:

noiseSome plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.

In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:

songsoftreesA tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.

As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.

But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:

In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.

#

The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.

And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.